Thursday, April 2, 2009


by Thomas Riggins

Karl and Fred were talking in Karl's study about the fact that they had been friends for over 50 years--since first grade in fact. Karl was saying “Why don’t we engage in an extended study of Chinese philosophy to see if any of it is useful in comprehending the new century” Fred was not at all adverse to this suggestion so Karl pulled down his copy of a Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy edited by the Chinese scholar Wing-Tsit Chan.

“I remember that very well,” Fred said. “When we were in Hawaii in the summer of 1968 you lugged it around with you every where you went. Do you still remember what you read?"

“I most certainly do,” replied Karl, handing the volume to Fred. “Here! Why don’t you look at it and ask some questions--between the two of us we can try to find out if this stuff has any meaning today.”

Fred opened the book and said, “We might as well begin with Confucius--he is the first philosopher I see listed in the Table of Contents.”

“So be it’” Karl replied.

“Ok,” Fred said, “I have the Analects here...”

Karl interrupted, “The Lun-yu in Chinese. That's a collection of Confucius’ sayings collected by his students after his death. You know Confucius was a great teacher like Jesus, Buddha and Socrates and like them he didn’t write anything himself--his wisdom was saved for us by his followers putting it down for future generations.”

“Oh, so we are getting ‘virtual’ Confucius.”

“Well," responded Karl, “there is probably some tampering with the text, some student misinterpretations, but also a lot of the real ideas and opinions of Confucius as well. After all, he was born in 551 BCE, lived 73 years, and died in 479 BCE.”

“That's 72 years,” Fred corrected.

“Ah,” Karl replied, “unlike us, in China when you are born you are considered to be one year old so when we are one a Chinese is already two!.”

“Anyway,” Karl continued, “He was from a small state called Lu and lived in a time of political turmoil and war because the central authority had broken down and all the little petty states were competing for power. Confucius was self educated, there were no professional teachers--he was the first--and he thought his ideas if practiced would restore the Empire to its former glory and create a just state for the people as well. Failing to do much in Lu he left it and wandered around to other states spreading his doctrines and collecting a large group of disciples who followed him. After many years he returned to Lu and died a few years later, leaving his ‘school’ behind.

“I see a bunch of Chinese technical terms here in Chan before we even get to Chapter One of the Lun-yu,” Fred remarked, “Have a look see!”

Karl took the book. “Yes, I see. I’ll tell you which ones are the most important and we will have to memorize them as they will keep cropping up. But for the time being we can ignore them. I’ll talk about them when they actually pop up. Why don’t you begin looking at the text of the Lun-yu.” Karl handed the book back to Fred.

“ What’s this 1:1 ?”

“It means ‘Section 1, Chapter 1’-a conventional ordering.”

“OK,” and Fred began to read: “1:1 Is it not a pleasure to learn and to repeat or practice from time to time what has been learned?”

“Very famous,” Karl interrupted. “The very first sentence. It indicates that Confucius enjoined the unity of theory and practice!”

Fred continued. ”What does he mean here in 1:8? ‘Have no friends who are not as good as yourself.’ If the Chinese thought Confucius was the greatest teacher and the best then he couldn’t have any friends!”

“He means ‘morally good’,” said Karl, “not the best teacher. Confucius was morally good and so were many of his disciples so he had plenty of friends.”

“Well, what about this: 1:11-’When a man’s father is alive, look at the bent of his will. When his father is dead, look at his conduct. If for three years he does not change from the way of his father, he may be called filial.’?”

“You know the ancient Chinese were very family oriented and patriarchal with large extended families and sons were filial--meaning obedient, respectful and loyal. Very unlike today with us!”

“You mean they were big on the Fifth Commandment!”

“They certainly would have agreed with it. Anyway, this quote just means that a son should be loyal to his father’s ideas while he is live, and stay loyal to them thru the three years of official mourning after his death, then he can go his own way with his own ideas--he has done his duty.”

“What about 2:1? He says ‘A ruler who governs his state by virtue is like the north polar star, which remains in its place while
all the other stars revolve around it.”

“Chan points out two things are going on here. One is the idea that the Ruler rules by virtue and second, as Thomas Jefferson would say , ‘that government governs best which governs least.’ Everything should fall into place naturally by the laws of virtue.”

“Wow! sounds like a Republican--no big government!”

“Or a Marxist--’virtue’ leads to the withering away of the state!”

“Hmmm. The Right and the Left can claim the old boy!”

“Well, lets wait and see on that one Fred.”

“O.K. Karl. 2:4 is very interesting. He says, ‘At fifteen my mind was set on learning [not Intendo]. At thirty my character had been formed. At forty I had no more perplexities [Gad Zooks!]. At fifty I knew the Mandate of Heaven (T’ien-ming). At sixty I was at ease with whatever I heard. At seventy I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing moral principles.”

“T’ien-ming--’Heaven-Fate’ or ‘Nature-Fate’ the famous ‘Mandate of Heaven’,” K mused. “You know Chan says the prevailing meaning of this term is what we would simply call the ‘laws of nature.’ Different Chinese thinkers in the long history of China of course meant many different things by this term--from God’s Providence to the philosopher’s ideas of moral law or fate (destiny) to natural endowment [genetic constitution].”

“Here is 2:11 ‘A man who reviews the old so as to find out the new is qualified to teach others’. I like that--it means a teacher has to keep reading and studying or he or she becomes stale and unfit. But what does 2:12 mean? ‘The superior man is not an implement.’ “

“This is the type of person who follows Confucian philosophy--the sage, the philosopher, etc. I don’t like the term ‘superior man’ and all its patriarchal suggestions, ‘superior person’ would be better. You know Fred, despite the prevailing sexism of Chinese culture in Confucius’ day, we have to see this philosophy as compatible with the equality of the sexes if its going to mean any thing in this new century of ours. Not being an ‘implement’ only means the sage is not just a tool to be used by those in power, a sort of technical expert used to carry out plans devised by others. A true wise person would be well rounded and part of the evaluative process. The scientists, for example, that made the Atomic Bomb, for all their smarts , were just implements. How many scientists today have any real input in the decision making process regarding the use of their work? Many are hired hands. I think this is what Confucius meant.”

“What does he mean here in 2:18--’When one’s words give few occasions for blame and his acts give few occasions for repentance--there lies his emolument’?

“Its as Chan points out--Confucianism stresses equally the importance of both words and actions.”

“3:17 won’t go over well today!”

“Read it!”

“Ok, Confucius is replying to one of his followers who was against killing a lamb as a sacrifice at the start of the month. ‘Tz’u! You love the lamb but I love the ceremony.’ What do you think of that one?”

“Times change. I think by now we all agree that animal sacrifices are a pretty primitive or barbaric behavioral pattern that nowadays would be considered a pretty ignorant sort of practice--but Confucius was living twenty-five centuries ago...”

Fred interrupted, “But weren’t there people, teachers in India at this time, that thought that killing animals was verboten?"

“I think the point is, this was acceptable in Chinese culture. Confucius is trying to point out the importance of tradition and ritual, but on this point I think Tz’u had a more advanced outlook--its too bad that Confucius didn’t rise to the occasion.”

“Here is another confusing saying, 4:10-’A superior man in dealing with the world is not for anything or against anything. He follows righteousness as the standard.”

“Hmmmm. Looks like you could not say ‘I’m for peace or I’m for social reform.’ But of course its confusing because it seems as if you could say ‘I’m for righteousness!’ Does Chan say anything in his comment Fred?”

Fred read out , “Here lies the basic idea of the Confucian doctrine of ching-ch’uan, or the standard and the exceptional, the absolute and the relative, or the permanent and the temporary.”

“This we should remember: ‘The Doctrine of Ching-Ch’uan’. It means don’t be dogmatic, don’t commit the fallacy of accident, maybe even be pragmatic--no, that's the wrong word. Keep an open mind and judge every situation you are confronted with in terms of its own unique problematic, but don’t break the rules of ‘righteousness.’ The big problem is of course how to determine what ‘righteousness’ is. For Confucius it seems to have been the rules of his own society seen from the vantage point of a man who looked to the past practices of an idealized former age. Confucius would balk at being involved in a current situation that deviated too much from the past--not always, but mostly. His view or doctrine would go along with what today we call ‘situational ethics’ but with a ‘conservative’ twist.”

“Maybe this will help,” Fred said. “In 4:15 he tells his follower

Tseng Tzu ‘there is one thread that runs through my doctrines’ which Tseng Tzu explained as ‘The Way of our Master is none other than conscientiousness (chung) and altruism (shu).’ So I say ‘righteousness’ equals chung + shu.”

“Not bad,” Karl remarked. “I like the idea of ‘one thread (i-kuan)’. What does Chan say about these terms?”

“Chung is the full development of a person’s mind--the good aspects, and Shu is extending these good aspects to other people. Develop your own abilities and help others develop theirs--what could be more righteous than that?”

“Read on!”

“Here is 4:16--’The superior man understands righteousness(i); the inferior man understands profit’. Yikes! Our whole Global Capitalist system is based on profit!"

"Maybe to be a Confucian today puts you in the opposition.”

“ Do you really think so Karl? Confucius lived under something like feudalism. What was his attitude?”

“This is getting heavy. I think we will have to keep these questions in mind and read along some more in the Source Book before we try to answer them.”

“OK by me. Here is just some information from 6:5. We find the name of Confucius’ favorite student was Yen Hui.”

“I know, he died very young, in his thirties.”

“What do you think of this? 6:17--’Man is born with uprightness. If one loses it he will be lucky if he escapes with his life’.”

“I don’t know what this means. ‘Uprightness’ is a culturally relative term and a person learns it from his or her society, so I don’t know what it can mean to say you are ‘born’ with it. But think of ‘with’ in the sense that a person is born into a society with [i.e., which has] such a sense, then if one loses the sense of uprightness inculcated into one by the society one gets into a pickle indeed. I can make sense of 6:17 along these lines.”

“Well Karl, I think you must be correct. Looking back to 5:12 I found this: Tzu-kung is speaking, ‘We can hear our Master’s [views] on culture and its manifestation, but we cannot hear his views on human nature and the Way of Heaven [because these subjects are beyond the comprehension of most people].’ So I don’t think that Confucius was talking about anything innate in humans.”

“I agree. What’s next?”

“6:19--’To those who are above average, one may talk of the higher things, but may not do so to those who are below average.’”

“This is sort of a philosophical rule. The Prime Directive of philosophy is to ‘Always seek the truth by means of logic and reason without appeals to faith and emotion.’ And here we have what I call the ‘Second Directive’--’don’t bother talking philosophy with people who don’t understand the importance of the Prime Directive.’”

“That’s how you interpret 6:19? Where does the Prime Directive come from? I haven’t seen it in the Analects?”

“Its from Socrates via Plato. But there are hints of it in the Analects. I’ll point them out when we come to them.”

“Maybe there is a hint of it right here in 6:20--”Devote yourself

earnestly to the duties due to men, and respect spiritual beings but keep them at a distance. This may be called wisdom.’ I think I see a hint there.”

“Good observation Fred. Read on!”

“OK, 6:21--’The man of wisdom delights in water; the man of humanity delights in mountains. The man of wisdom is active; the man of humanity is tranquil. The man of wisdom enjoys happiness; the man of humanity enjoys long life.’ “

“These are two of Confucius big values--activity and tranquility. They are found in the same person depending on the circumstances. By the way, Yen Hui had a short life but I doubt that Confucius did not consider him a man of humanity.”

“And Chan remarks that ‘courage’ was later added to the list and that Mencius grouped these first two values with his concepts of righteousness and propriety to get ‘The Four Beginnings.’”

“Yes, but we will get to Mencius in due time. Let’s not jump the gun.”

“6:23--’When a cornered vessel no longer has any corner, should it be called a cornered vessel? Should it?’”

“We are approaching here a central and important doctrine of Confucius--the rectification of names--but we will have to wait a while for its proper development. Its just hinted at here.”

“I see Chan’s brief comment:’ Name must correspond to actuality.’ The Correspondence Theory of Truth!”

“What’s next?”

“6:28--’A man of humanity, wishing to establish his own
character, also establishes the character of others, and wishing to be prominent himself, also helps others to be prominent. To be able to judge others by what is near to ourselves may be called the method of realizing humanity.’ Chan calls this ‘The Confucian golden rule in a nutshell.’ “

“Yes, and this passage is connected with 4:15 and the ‘one thread’ passage.”

“7:1--’I transmit but do not create. I believe in and love the ancients.’ Chan suggests we compare this with 2:11 and points out that he did do things that were new--’he offered education to all’--and his ideas on the ‘superior man’ and ‘heaven’ were somewhat original.”

“That comment on education needs to be looked at, especially the ‘all’ part. I want to give Confucius his due credit. He was not a stuck-up aristocrat and if so-called common people showed an aptitude for learning or people from impoverished economic and/or social backgrounds showed talent, Confucius welcomed them as students. This was really a big step forward for the China of his day and in his own social context Confucius was an enlightened person in this respect. But he did NOT offer education to ‘all’. He had nothing to do with women and did not rise above his social conditioning with respect to their rights as human beings with the same value as males. In this respect Plato was much more enlightened than he. One wonders if women had been seen as equals by Confucius if they would have had to wait until the victory of the Marxists in 1949 for the preconditions of their emancipation.”

“Excellent observation Karl. I wonder why Chan missed it. Anyway, here is 7:8--’I do not enlighten those who are not eager to learn, nor arouse those who are not anxious to give an explanation themselves. If I have presented one corner of the square and they cannot come back to me with the other three, I
should not go over the points again.’”

“A very revealing quote on his teaching methods. Compare it to 6:19.”

“In 7:16 he says ‘Give me a few more years so that I can devote fifty years to study, then I may be free from great mistakes.”

“This reminds me of Hume’s satire on his own death--asking Charon to grant him a leave of a few years so he might see the overthrow of religious superstition. Of course Confucius is not trying to be funny, this simply shows his modesty--yet fifty years is hardly a few!”

“7:20-’Confucius never discussed strange phenomena, physical exploits, disorder, or spiritual beings’”

“Here is one of those Prime Directive hints we were speaking about earlier.”

“7:22--’Heaven produced the virtue that is in me; what can Huan T’ui do to me?’”

“This seems deterministic. Huan T’ui tried to assassinate Confucius. It seems as if Confucius was a Presbyterian here. If Heaven has determined what shall be then Huan T’ui really can’t do much to Confucius. There are many problems with this type of determinism which are not discussed in the Analects.”

“7:24-’Confucius taught four things: culture (wen), conduct, loyalty, and faithfulness.’”

“Very succinct statement showing that Confucius’ concern was with social philosophy--politics and ethics--and not religion or metaphysics.”

“Here is 7:29--’Is humanity far away? As soon as I want it, there it is right by me.’”

“Its as Chan remarks. We are always able to act properly. Our humanity is always on call and we have no one to blame but ourselves if we fail to act upon it--unless there is a gun to your head or something similar.”

“Now Karl, here is a good one--more than a hint of the Prime Directive if you ask me. 7:34--’Confucius was very ill. Tzu-lu asked that prayer be offered. Confucius said “is there such a thing?” Tzu-lu replied, “There is. A Eulogy says, ‘Pray to the spiritual beings above and below.’” Confucius said, “My prayer has been for a long time [that is, what counts is the life that one leads].”’”

“I agree with you Fred, this is really a great quote. Confucius has no interest in religious mumbo jumbo. This would be especially true if he thinks Heaven is a deterministic system. It looks like Tzu-lu missed one corner ot the square!”

“7:37--’Confucius is affable but dignified, austere but not harsh, polite but completely at ease.’ And Chan remarks that this is ‘The Confucian Mean in practice.’ But we haven’t talked about the ‘Mean’ have we?”

“Not yet, but its coming up. Its more or less like the Greek notion of nothing in excess.”

“Now here is a very interesting description of Yen Hui the favorite disciple. Chan says it is very Taoist. It is given by Tseng Tzu. 8:5--’Gifted with ability, yet asking those without; possessing much, yet asking those who possess little; having, yet seeming to have none; full, yet seeming vacuous; offended, yet not contesting--long ago I had a friend who devoted himself to these ways.’ And now to continue. Here is an example of elitist thinking! 8:9--’The common people may be made to follow it (the Way) but may not be made to understand it.’”

“This goes along with the sentiments in 6:19. Undemocratic from our point of view but quite in keeping with the feudal mentality of the times. This distrust of ordinary people seems endemic. Not only is our U.S. government designed to minimize participation by the common people but we have seen the collapse of the European socialist countries was facilitated by a similar, and in their case paternalistic, contempt of the ordinary person. The current Chinese government seems no different in this regard no matter how much better off materially the majority of the people may be.”

“Here comes a passage that Chan says has caused a lot of problems in the Confucian tradition. 9:1--’Confucius seldom talked about profit, destiny
(ming or the Mandate of Heaven), and humanity.’ Chan points out that while ‘profit’ is discussed only six times and ‘destiny’ ten times ‘humanity’ is mentioned one hundred five times! So how can it be maintained that Confucius seldom talked about it. Chan says it is an intractable problem. Confucius had positions on all these subjects.”

“Well, I understand not talking a lot about ‘profit’--’chung + shu’ seem incompatible, at least if profit is elevated to the primary aim of life. ‘Ming’ is a metaphysical concept and we have already noted that metaphysics was not one of Confucius’ major concerns.”

“9:16--’Confucius, standing by a stream, said, “it passes on like this, never ceasing day or night!”’”

“Obviously a metaphor for time and life. This saying is very much in the spirit of Heraclitus and even the Hegelian dialectic. I hope the Chinese Marxists appreciate it!”

“Now we have what Chan says is ’a most celebrated saying on humanism’. Another one of those hints we were speaking of previously--a lot more than a hint actually. 11:11 Tzu-lu ‘asked about serving the spiritual beings. Confucius said,”If we are not yet able to serve man, how can we serve spiritual beings?” “I venture to ask about death.” Confucius said, “If we do not yet know about life, how can we know about death?”’

“A really great quote Fred. Would that all the squabbling religious fanatics we are reading about in the papers every day might heed these words!”

“ We have come to 11:25 A, I am going to summarize it. It is rather long but has generated a great deal of speculation as to its meaning because of what many consider to be the unusual responses in it by Confucius. In this passage Confucius asks several of his companions what they would most like to do in the world assuming they had attained office and recognition. One replied that he would like to govern a state that was in dire straits so that in three years the people could see how he could solve all the problems. Another gave a similar answer while admitting that he was not himself a ‘superior man.’ Another wanted to be a junior assistant as he was still learning. Finally Tseng Hsi said ‘ In the late Spring, when the spring dress is ready, I would like to go with five or six grownups and six or seven young boys to bathe in the I River, enjoy the breeze on the Rain Dance Alter, and then return home singing.’ Now Confucius re plied “I agree with Tien.’ The Chinese have expended a lot of ink trying to find out why Confucius agreed with Tseng Hsi (‘Tien’ was a familiar name).

Well, Fred,” Karl began, “it seems pretty clear that what Confucius is saying is that its best to have power in a well ordered state that doesn’t require any heroics to administer. His other students didn’t get the point, obviously, of Confucius’ ideas about government. He seems to have had a lot of students he should have gone over that first corner with again.”

“That’s right A. Now here is a version of the ‘Golden Rule’ from the Analects--its in 12:2 ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.’”

“The negative version. I used to think that the ‘Golden Rule’ was unique to our culture till I read about it long ago in the works of Confucius.”

“A point for anti-ethnocentrism.”


“12:22--’Fan Ch’ih asked about humanity. Confucius said, “It is to love men.” He asked about knowledge. Confucius said “It is to know man.”’”

“Again the stress on moral and social subjects. Of course today knowing ‘man’ would include psychology, anthropology, evolutionary biology, etc., etc. And ‘love’.... here we need a real definition of what constitutes ‘love’ of humanity. What is the real substance of Confucian Humanism.?”

“Is it just practicing the ‘Golden Rule’ in whatever situation you find yourself?”

“Maybe. But maybe its more action oriented than that. Maybe ‘love’ means we have to strive to change the social situations in which we find people. Maybe nowadays Confucianism can only be practiced within the Marxist framework. Sort of ‘Marxism-Confucianism.’”

“That sounds a little like the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. He said he had come to realize that hi s philosophy, ‘existentialism,’ could only be developed within a form of Marxism because the social conditions that brought forth Marxism have not been transcended. In fact, according to him, no philosophy made any sense that ignored or rejected Marxism because only Marxism addressed itself to the problems of humanity as a whole, to abolishing race and class exploitation and treating, eventually, all people as ends.”

“We are getting far afield. Better get back to the Analects!”

“13:3--here Confucius brings up the topic of ‘The Rectification of Names’. ‘If names are not rectified, then language will not be in accord with truth. If language is not in accord with truth, then things cannot be accomplished.’”

“You know L this is extremely important. This is reminiscent of Bertrand Russell and of the Analytic Philosophers and the Oxford ordinary language philosophers. The words we use to describe reality have to correspond to that reality. People are misled and misgoverned all the time by being duped by the misuse of names. Remember the Vietnam War--American troops would retreat and the military brass would call it an ‘advance to the rear’! They were just trying to mislead and confuse the American people.

“Like renaming the War Department the ‘Department of Defense' or calling the invasion of Iraq 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' instead of 'Operation Iraqi Oil'”

“I think we have another directive under our Prime Directive, or rather another rule.”

“That’s one directive and two rules we have then.”

“Yes. Rule One--don’t discuss philosophy with those who reject the Prime Directive. Rule Two--’The Rectification of Names.’ That is ‘language must be in accord with truth.’ This may be difficult to attain but we must constantly strive for it. You see, we are learning lots of stuff we can apply to our own age and culture!”

“Hmmmm. Here is a difficult passage I think. 13:18--’The Duke of She told Confucius, “In my country there is an upright man called Kung. When his father stole a sheep, he bore witness against him.” Confucius said, “The upright men in my country are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son and the son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.” ‘ What do you make of that Karl?”

“I think its the ‘Euthyphro Problem.’”

“ What’s that?”

“Plato wrote a dialog called the Euthyphro. Socrates meets Euthyphro who is on his way to report a murder his father has committed. He thinks piety requires this. This is like Kung being a witness against his father because he, and the Duke of She, think that uprightness requires this. Confucius holds the contrary view.”

At this point Karl walked over to his bookcase and pulled out the Oxford Companion to Philosophy. “There is an article here on this problem Fred, by Gareth Matthews. I think it will throw some light on Comrade Kung’s behavior.”

By all means, Karl, carry on!.”

“To put the problem in Chinese terms we have to figure out what does ‘uprightness’ consist of-- that is where does the notion come from. Is it one thing in Lu, Confucius' native state, and another in She or is it constant so Confucius is really indicating that the Duke of She is wrong. I must say, I don’t have an answer to this and neither did Socrates. Here let me read this passage, or paraphrase it to the Chinese context. The point seems to be that ‘uprightness’ can’t be defined as something we should do because some authority demands it of us, say God or Heaven, because then we would only be doing it because of authority and authorities differ. Nor can it be the case that God or Heaven orders it because it is right to do so because then it is an independent thing to which God or Heaven is subject. So we really can’t figure out from whence the standard of ‘uprightness’ is derived. Its the old ‘Is it good because God wills it or does God will it because it is good’ problem. I think the Prime Directive rules out ‘God” as an explanation, so we have to say on one level ‘uprightness’ is relative to cultures, the level of cultural development and on another level we have to contextualize the circumstances of each situational act. The Duke of She hasn’t given us enough information on this case and I think Confucius jumped the gun with his reply. Is your primary duty to your family or to the state--i.e., to a legal system which should protect all. Its Kung’s father that is the problem but between the Duke of She and Confucius its not possible to definitely say one or the other is right. It seems the duty to ‘truth’ however would tip the scales against Confucius unless Kung volunteered this information in a noncompulsory environment.”

“14:36--’Someone said,”What do you think of repaying hatred with virtue?” Confucius said,”In that case what are you going to repay virtue with? Rather, repay hatred with uprightness and repay virtue with virtue .”’

“Confucius means you repay hatred with proper behavior according to the circumstances.”

“This means, according to Chan, absolute impartiality. Confucianists mean that by ‘uprightness’.

“If so than Kung was being impartial in saying his father stole the sheep.
Confucius should have agreed with the Duke of She!”

“In 15:8 he reaffirms his humanism: ’A resolute scholar and a man of humanity will never seek to live at the expense of injuring humanity. He would rather sacrifice his life in order to realize humanity.’”

“Go on Fred.”

“OK, 15:23, a follower asks if there is one word that sums up Confucius’ philosophy. You guess Karl!”

"Well, I think it must be 'humanity' (jen/ren)."

“No, its shu or altruism, from 4:15. He then repeats the negative ‘Golden Rule’ which must be the real meaning of altruism and hence is the one word summation of Confucius philosophy!”

So we can boil down the whole of the Analects to this one comment. But lets proceed anyway.”

“OK, 15:28 ‘It is man that can make the Way great, and not the Way that can make man great.”

“This is heavy Fred. The Way or Tao is the master controlling force, as it were, of the universe--”God” to Westerners! So we make ‘God’ he doesn’t make us ‘great.’ I think this boils down to our actions in life reflect on the Way, we in a sense create it in our own image-- we can follow it positively or negatively. For example if we ourselves are , say, homophobic or think males are higher than females, or want to control the actions and thoughts of others, lo and behold, our ‘God’ wants that too, and vice versa.”

“So our religion is just the reflection of the kind of human beings we are.”

“Yes, and that is based on our education, our openness, and the culture we are brought up in--wide or narrow.”

“15:38--’In education there should be no class distinction.’”

“To bad he didn’t, as Plato did, add ‘no sex distinction’ as well. He would have to be against our system of public schools for the masses and elite private schools for the rich. American or European followers of Confucius have a big educational reform to fight for. Even private universities would have to go public....”

“Or let anyone attend. I’m not sure everything has to be public. You could have both--just that admission standards and costs have to be equalized so the rich don’t end up in one type of system and the poor in another.”

“I see we can have a big debate about this!”

“Here in 16:9 is something we can’t agree with, at least as he puts it. ‘Those who are born with knowledge are the highest type of people. Those who learn through study are the next. Those who learn through hard work are still the next. Those who work hard and still do not learn are really the lowest type.’”

“This is no good. People are not ‘born’ with knowledge. Also different people learn different things. You might work hard at chemistry and not learn it but work at history or literature or physics and learn that, or music. Confucius should have recognized ‘different strokes for different folks’--this idea is an elitist throwback--a little too judgmental I think.”

“OK Karl, I won’t argue with you because I think you might be right. Nevertheless, there may be something to what he says if you substitute ‘capacity’ for ‘knowledge. What do you think about this in 17:2-’By nature men are alike. Through practice they have become far apart’?”

“Well we can universalize this and see how contemporary Confucius' thought is. He is indicating what we now commonly think to be true, that is, that human beings are pretty much equal all over the world and it is only cultural differences which separate us. Jarrod Diamond’s recent book, Guns, Germs and Steel, demonstrates this thesis. It is a little inconsistent with what we have just been discussing since the differences between humans should be due to ‘practice’ so some people should not be ‘born’ with knowledge.”

“And we should note that what Chan says in 17:2 is ‘the classical Confucian dictum on human nature.’”

“All the better. This dictum is absolutely superior, from a modern perspective, to Aristotle’s views, in the Politics, about the superiority of Greeks and his notion about ‘natural slaves.’ Not even Plato, it would seem, had advanced to this Confucian idea.”

“You are thinking about his discussion in the Republic about the different ways Greeks should treat Greeks as opposed to barbarians in warfare?”


“Now, right after this, in 17:3 he says ‘Only the most intelligent and the most stupid do not change.’”

“Looks like another deviation from 17:2 but I think not. I think, as in Aristotle, we should be putting a little mental note to ourselves when we read these passages, such as ‘always OR for the most part’. This allows us to recognize that we are dealing with general principles not absolute ‘laws’. While there may be individual variation in intellectual capacity this should be a cross cultural thing. By and large within, as between, cultures ‘intelligence’ is also a social construction, therefore I don’t think there is any ultimate contradiction between 17:2 and 17:3.”

“Karl, do you think we have another Rule,Rule Three, with 17:2?”

“I don’t see why not. Rule Three: ‘All human beings are basically alike, ie., equal.’ Just remember the proviso that since we are dealing with a multi-cultural world this needs some interpretation.”

“Such as?”

“Such as they are ‘equal’ before the law, or subject to the same ‘rights’ as each other. Basically we all evolved from the same blob so its got to be ‘practice’ that separates the Queen of England from Apple Annie! “

“Here is an excellent quote to underscore Confucian Humanism--17:19: ‘Does Heaven say anything? The four seasons run their course and all things are produced. Does Heaven say anything?’”

“Even after all these centuries how can we improve on this observation.”

“Its not an observation, its a question. I think Confucius meant it to be left open.”

“Maybe. We don’t have to answer this now then.”

“We may have to retract Rule Three--look at 17:25-’Women and servants are most difficult to deal with. If you are familiar with them, they cease to be humble. If you keep a distance from them, they resent it.’ And Chan says Confucius and the whole tradition thought women to be inferior (servants may differ due to ‘practice’).”

I see, we put ‘human beings’ in Rule Three and Confucius had said ‘men’ so we were giving him credit for what is actually a modern idea. This universal sexism, except perhaps for Socrates, is a problem. We now
know there is no scientific evidence to justify it and so women would have to be included under Rule Three whatever Confucius may have thought. We are holding to the view that Confucius and other past philosophers would change and adapt their views to accord with what we could demonstrate to them by our modern methods to be true of the natural world. So I think they, as philosophers, would give up an outmoded sexism just as they would the centrality of the earth in the solar system. After these considerations I think we can keep Rule Three.”

“This last is a quote :from a pupil, Tzu-hsia, ‘So long as a man does not transgress the boundary line in the great virtues, he may pass and repass it in the small virtues.’ 19:11.”

“That’s it?”

“There is a little more but I think I hit all the major issues or points.”

“So we have Confucius in a ‘nutshell’ as it were. I think we have made some progress in understanding Chinese philosophy in its infancy. We have a Prime Directive, actually derived from the Greeks, and three rules to go by. Now we should look at another ancient Chinese tradition which may be a big rival to Confucius--I mean lets discuss the views of Lao Tzu.”

"OK, but let's post that later."

c. 2006 Thomas Riggins

No comments: